Though he’s a long time gone from the political fray, former Sen. Rod Grams keeps a close watch on the goings-on in Washington from his place on the family farm and the familiar confines of the media world he was in before being elected to Congress.
A Minnesota native, Grams grew up on the same farm his father was born and raised on. He came to Capitol Hill as a Republican member of the House in 1993, and after serving one term he was elected to the Senate, where he served until 2001. He lost his re-election bid to Democrat Mark Dayton, who is now governor.
In a roundabout way, farm life not only preceded Grams’ political career, it brought it into existence in the first place by shaping his politics.
Growing up on the farm got him used to waking up bright and early. When he took an afternoon radio job, he needed something to fill those morning hours to which he had become accustomed. He started a couple of companies, one of which involved building homes for people, and that’s where he ran up against the law — not by breaking it, but by following it.
While he’d been plugging away at his work, Congress and the state of Minnesota both retroactively eliminated a tax credit on building solar-powered homes. As a result, Grams lost $5,000 each in 1980s dollars on several homes he’d built.
It was an unforeseeable shortfall that had nothing to do with market forces and everything to do with regulation. That’s when he decided to stop complaining about the situation and go do something about it, he said in a recent interview with CQ Roll Call.
He described the relationship between private enterprise and government as perpetually at loggerheads. Regulatory obstacles were the name of the game, and he was content enough to play it until he saw that only one side could change the rules — and do so at its leisure, to boot.
“It just kind of upset me that the government can do things like that,” he said. So he decided to fix the system from the inside out. “I think that’s the best way to do it.”
While in Congress, Grams kept things iconoclastic, refusing to vote the party line if it disagreed with his own principle of fairness. Grams was voting against his fellow Republicans before it was cool. Watching young tea partyers do the same today makes him wish he could be a part of that with them, he said. “The juices get flowing and you wish you were there again to at least be part of the debate.”
He was a “no” vote, for example, on the 1993 transportation bill. Fairness was his motivator once again: It didn’t make sense to him that Minnesotans should have to pay for federal subsidies to public transit systems on the eastern seaboard. Party leadership tried to convince him otherwise — “I can still feel the finger in my chest,” he said — but he stood his ground.
“I think I gained some respect. I hope I did,” he said. “I was never confronted like that again.”
That was only the beginning for Grams. In later years in the Senate, dairy provisions in the farm bill brought annual tussles with Mississippi’s Thad Cochran. Grams argued that outdated price regulations gave an unfair advantage to regional producers, including those in Mississippi, whose supply had matured past the point of needing a boost from taxpayers.
And his view on agricultural regulations came from very personal experience. When he was a boy, regulations weren’t especially pervasive, but Grams said he’s witnessed an unfortunate transformation of the industry with the growth of the provisions. “Because of the farm bill, there [aren’t] many seeds that go into the ground today that aren’t under some government program,” he said.
“To have any success, farmers are almost forced into it,” Grams continued. That stands in sharp contrast to his grandfather, who in his day refused to participate in the Soil Bank Program, a conservation provision in the Agricultural Act of 1956. “Nobody’s gonna tell him how he’s going to operate his land,” Grams recalled.
See You on the Radio
Back at home, he owns Little Falls Radio in Little Falls, Minn., and hosts an hourlong talk segment that allows him to get riled up on the politics of the day, albeit from afar. “It’s just a lot of fun. I kind of rant and rave a little bit now and then,” he said. “Being a conservative Republican, I’ve got a slant to my perspective.”
There’s a part of him that’s perpetually drawn to what’s happening in Washington, perhaps a result of growing up in a family that was active in local politics. He’s got a full life in Minnesota — the farm, the radio stations, his wife, 18 grandchildren and a 90-year-old mother who’s still in very good health by his judgment — but his eyes keep turning east.
That part of him is what led him to agree, after some convincing, to help his old friend Chip Cravaack settle in when the younger Minnesota Republican was elected to the House in 2010. Grams worked as chief of staff and enjoyed the feeling of being among old friends again.
It’s those bonds, he said, that are paramount to having any legislative success, let alone a good time. He recalled his relationship with fellow Minnesotan Tim Penny, a former House Democrat who is still a close friend. When Grams was a freshman representative, Penny would come up to him on the floor and try to convince him to vote one way or another on a given piece of legislation.
Coming from a Democrat, even a conservative one like Penny, that was suspicious to Grams. In reality, Penny acted not as a saboteur, he eventually realized, but out of an interest in what Grams called good government over party politics. That, after all, is what brought him to Capitol Hill in the first place, but it might have gotten lost in all the hubbub if not for that early counsel.
“Everything you do shouldn’t be party or shouldn’t be politics,” Grams said. “I kind of learned that from Tim.”